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It's Only a Number
By Robert Whitley
May 17, 2011
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I will be the first to admit that I’ve tried to have it both ways in the ongoing discussion over the rising level of alcohol in table wines.

Anyone who has followed the debate surely realizes by now that the argument is fraught with hypocrisy. My own included. At its core, this is an issue of style and a matter of personal preference. When grapes are picked at a greater degree of ripeness, the additional sugar accumulation produces a higher level of alcohol in the finished wine, and that fundamentally alters the wine’s structure and taste.

The wine critic Robert Parker has been known to call this altered characteristic “flavor” and opponents of this style the “anti-flavor” crowd. Some of us who’ve been drinking so-called “fine” wines since the early 1970s have an inkling of where Parker is coming from.

There was a time when vintners were too accepting of the vagaries of nature and bottled wines that weren’t up to par.

This was particularly true in Bordeaux and Burgundy, but also extended into Tuscany and other vinous outposts that were generally well regarded for the quality of their wines. Bad vintages, off-vintages, disastrous vintages were taken with a shrug. Thin, uninteresting, short-lived wines were the result. This is what the Good Lord meant for us to have this vintage, so please pass the vinegar, and amen to all that!

Parker, as many of us from the time were, happened to collect Bordeaux. When he came along with his publication, The Wine Advocate, he had the temerity to say to the barons of Bordeaux enough is enough. He took the great Chateaux to task for the weakness of their so-called “off” vintages and forced a revolution in the approach to every vintage, including the difficult harvests. There was too much money and good will at stake, he reasoned, to do otherwise.

The glorious 1982 vintage in Bordeaux, which Parker lavished with praise, helped make his point. The Bordeaux of ’82 were ripe, lush and delicious from the start, and with Parker’s megaphone the world knew it. That was the beginning of the great run-up in Bordeaux prices that continues to this day.

At the same time, a market was created for ripe, supple Bordeaux that could be drunk young, and the rest of the wine world took notice. Ripeness and alcohol levels have been climbing ever since.

Now, you may argue that this has been a bad thing. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Wine has never been more popular, and not just because the Chinese have recently taken an interest in the stuff. A taste for wine has swept the country as never before and it extends to virtually every demographic that can legally consume alcohol.

The new generation of wine drinker enjoys the big, bold wines of California, Australia, Argentina and Spain. The more seasoned wine drinker has been crying out, more forcibly in recent years, for wines with greater restraint and finesse. There is now an “us” versus “them” tension that often plays out in snarky exchanges on the popular wine-site chat boards.

I find myself caught in that no-man’s land where I can see both points of view. In my own wine selections, I gravitate toward wines that are not so fruit-driven, have more acidity, firmer structure and a greater life expectancy. At the same time, I can easily fall in love with a fleshy, supple wine that’s ready to drink the moment it’s bottled.

Both styles should be respected. But here’s where I’m having some trouble. There is a push on now to include the stated alcohol (alcohol by volume, or ABV) with all wine reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle wine section, for example, recently elected to include the ABV with its reviews. Far be it from me to dictate editorial policy for any other wine publication, but here at Wine Review Online we have resisted the pressure to include ABV, although many of us mention the stated alcohol in our reviews when we believe the number is relevant.

My objection to the ABV number is purely philosophical. I don’t believe it accurately portrays any aspect of a wine’s personality. Yes, if you choose a 14.5 ABV wine over a 13.5 ABV wine, you will consume more alcohol over the course of dinner, but that’s all the number tells you.

Flavor, structure, balance and personal enjoyment can only be ascertained by tasting the wine. Or trusting the instincts and accuracy of the reviewer, which in fact guides many wine buying decisions, or WRO wouldn’t have a reason for being.

I will use one of my favorite wines, the Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley, to make my point. Every vintage of Hillside Select, it seems, states the alcohol at 14.9 percent. Given the leeway a winery has to miss the accurate percentage by as much as one point, the true number could be 16 percent or it could be 13.5.

Sometimes I think Hillside Select is closer to the former than the latter, and I tend to ignore those vintages. What puts me off is the heat on the finish and the sense of very ripe bordering on overripe fruit. Other vintages I absolutely fall in love with. Though still very ripe because that is this wine’s style, I don’t get the heat and the balance is exquisite.

If all I did was look at the ABV number on the label and form a conclusion, I would miss out on some of the greatest red wine the Napa Valley has to offer.

If you choose to buy your wine by the ABV number, that’s certainly your call. As for me, I do believe I will taste it first before making up my mind.